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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind


By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/4/2024
Occurred: 6/1/1960
Page Views: 5397
Topics: #Vermont #Autobiography #Victory
How we turned a 100-year-old house into a lovely home.

Early Spring

When Mom received word that the road into Victory was passable, she loaded the car, checked out of our winter quarters at Val's Motel, and headed for home. And yes, the road was passable; but there was still plenty of snow on the ground.

The house in the snow.

My primary concern was the mail, which I assumed had been piling up all winter since I didn't know about temprary-change-of-address cards. But Mary Joan wanted to get the mail, too. So I contented myself with a photo of her holding the somewhat-disappointing booty.

Mary Joan holding the mail.

As cold as it still was, my sisters and I spent most of our time indoors, for example, playing with costumes made from our mom's old clothes.

Louise in costume.

Gramma and Grandpa

Mom's father and stepmother were frequent visitors—so frequent, in fact, that Mom permanently assigned them the back bedroom.

Before they came for a visit, we would clean the house thoroughly…and by "we" I mean "Mom," at least for the most part. However, there was one chore I was assigned and enjoyed.

Black flies tend to gather in dark, undisturbed places; and summer days in Vermont it got so warm the flies didn't want to budge. Instead, they collected, by the hundreds, behind the frames of wall paintings and photos. So I got to use the vacuum cleaner, a little Art Deco canister that rolled about on casters (like R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies twenty-five years later). I would take down a painting or frame from the wall, then scoop up hundreds of lethargic flies with the vacuum cleaner wand. I often wondered why they didn't just fly out when I turned off the machine, but they never did, and I kept shifting between two possible explanations: One, that they were so lethargic that they found the inside of the vacuum even more pleasant than behind a photo of newly-installed Pope John XXIII; or two, that they simply could not find their way out of the interior of the vacuum.

That back bedroom had previously been cousin Cyril's quarters while he was working on the house. To enter it, one had to pass through Ray's room, which must have been awkward. However, Gramma and Grampa only stayed with us a few weeks. Grampa was well past retirement age, and he and Gramma found a nice two-bedroom townhouse apartment in St. Johnsbury. By August they had moved in there, all their familiar furniture from their apartment on Belleview Avenue in Bloomfield having been shipped up.

As in their previous apartment, the spare room was dubbed the "Vernon Room" (named after my grandfather) and was, basically, his den doubling as a guest room (though it would soon become the room of his sister, my great-Aunt Edna).

Grampa and Gramma on the front "stoop" of their apartment at 19 Federal Street in St. Johnsbury.

Although it was only about 20 miles from our house to Gramma and Grampa's, the trip took a good hour because the dirt road in Victory was in such poor shape. It couldn't really be driven much faster than 30 or 40 MPH. Nevertheless, Mom drove us there almost every day to "shop" in St. Johnsbury, a venture which always ended up with us visiting Gramma and Grampa. The grownups would then sit on lawn chairs beneath a great, spreading oak on the apartment building's front yard while we kids did somersaults, played in the grass, or introduced ourselves to the neighbors.

I realize now, of course, that Mom was just lonely for adult company back then. It had been her idea to move to rural Vermont, but that had been based on her pleasant childhood memories; a lot had changed since then, not the least of which she was now a mother with small children who demanded her attention, and a widow with no one whose attention she could demand.

Louise's First Communion

Louise's First Communion gown.

As Mary Joan and I had done the previous spring, it was now time for Louise's First Communion. This, like ours, was also performed at St. Leo's in Lunenburg by Father Dimassi. For the occasion, Mom splurged on Kodacolor film. The picture shows off our beautiful wooden banister, as well as Louise in her cap and gown.

Louise, Paul, and Mary Joan on Louise's First Communion Day.

Then we see the three of us kids, the girls with their favorite dolls, in the girls' room. This room, slightly larger than mine, usually doubled as playroom for all of us.

Note the battleship-gray-painted floor. Why Mom chose to have the floors painted rather than varnished—they were composed of beautiful wooden planks perfectly fitted together—I'll never know.


Simpleton. D-oh!

My theatrical career, which had begun inauspiciously with my short-lived performance of Orchestra Leader in kindergarten (Mother Superior hit me in the nose with the baton and, when I made a face, fired me), received a boost with my role as the lead in "Simpleton", a very short play based on a nursery rhyme. Mom, who loved theatre, decked me out in clothes I had outgrown. I don't remember much about the play except that my lines consisted of one word repeated: "D-oh!"

Renovations II

Grampa assisted in moving wood for the second renovation.

In Mom's second round of renovations, she decided to take down the "woodshed" and the "first" and "second attics". I hated to see the first attic go, as this was where my Victrola had lived. But Mom moved it into my bedroom; and the workmen (including Ray) got out their crowbars and saws.

Mom's justification for removing the north end of the house (but retaining the floor of the wood shed) was to create an area for "cotillions" after the girls and I became teenagers. I have no idea in what universe cotillions might have seemed like a likely scenario. And the reality was, shortly after we moved away, heavy snows piled upon the flat surface caused it to collapse. Vermont houses have peaked roofs for a reason.

Lazy Summer

That summer was probably the easiest of my childhood summers. Our house had an electrical generator so I no longer had to clean the kerosene oil lamps. We watched the one TV channel at night (with shows like Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and The Lawrence Welk Show) and, though we could not receive any radio stations, I could play records on my Victrola anytime, and my electric phonograph when the generator was on. (The generator automatically turned on anytime a draw of 60 watts or more existed. My new phonograph only drew 48 watts, which wasn't enough. I could force the generator on by running a room light at the same time as the phonograph, but this seemed wasteful to me and I seldom did it.)

The point is, though, that the electrification of our house was complete, which made life much easier. All the wiring was in place; the walls were papered, the floors, ceiling and trim painted. While Mom's modifications to the house continued (to keep Ray the carpenter around?), they no longer impacted my and my sisters' bedrooms, where we slept and played; and they kept our surroundings interesting without being intrusive.

Me reading a Dennis the Menace paperback.

By now I had learned to read simple books. A favorite was Dennis the Menace, whose author had gathered newspaper cartoons into paperback books. I made Mom take a picture of me enjoying one of these books and sent it to Hank Ketcham, the author; but never got a response.

That didn't spoil my love of Dennis, though. I learned to draw the character and wrote Dennis the Menace comics of my own.

Mom continued to let us play, unsupervised, in the woods behind the house. In today's culture this would be considered tantamount to child abuse, or at least, neglect. But we loved it. It contributed to our adult sense of competency, as well as a love of nature. And the fact is, nothing bad ever happened to us: no broken bones, no bear encounters, no lost children. I often wonder if today's overprotective parents aren't raising a generation of adults who are truly incapable of taking care of themselves? Or worse, afraid to even try?

I spent, literally, hours in those woods and in the meadows between them. Frankly, I do not remember what I did in all that time. Sometimes I ate berries—and there were always berries. Sometimes, I led my sisters along the old wagon trail to see if we could find the end. Sometimes, I merely sat on a boulder in the warm summer sun or read beneath a tree and laid in the grass watching the clouds drift overhead. It was a solitary time, but I didn't feel lonely. Instead, I grew comfortable being by myself or with my dog, Wrags, who admittedly usually followed me anywhere I went.

Me painting the clothesline: A bargain for four comic books!

One chore I was given was the painting of the clothesline frame, a job Gramma assigned. Aunt Al would have simply demanded I do it; but Gramma knew you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, and offered to "pay" me in comic books. She offered to buy me four, which, at ten cents apiece, meant that for forty cents she not only got the clothesline painted, but used up the potentially troublesome barn-red paint I had already used to destroy my bicycle and write on the door of the garage. Quite a bargain!

Harvey's Lake

We didn't spend all our time on the property in Victory or visiting in St, Johnsbury. Mom enjoyed going for Sunday drives. We were already out and dressed up for church; why not just keep driving? Also, Mom liked to visit "other" Catholic churches than our usual one in Lunenburg; so sometimes we'd go on a longer drive than usual and include Mass in the itinerary. We drove up near the Canadian border, visiting—but not swimming in—Lake Memphremagog, Lake Willoughby, and Lake Bomoseen. We were not allowed to swim in those places because, according to Mom, they were "bottomless" and one of her great fears (one of many) was that we might drown and our bodies never be recovered. For some reason that was a worse fate, for her, than drowning but having one's body be recovered.

Now that I was a sophisticated almost-fourth-grader, I hastened to educate Mom as to the construction of the Earth; how no lake could possibly be bottomless. To which Mom would reply that of course there was a bottom, but it was so far down it had never been measured. We had the same conversation repeatedly, every time we visited one of these "bottomless" lakes. Decades later, when I drove Mom back to Vermont on a vacation, she began to go on about the "bottomless" lakes again. "Don't you think they've measured them by now?" I asked. "What with sonar and Doppler and other advanced exploratory devices they now have?"

"How could they?" she retorted. "They're bottomless."

Harvey's Lake

One of the places we visited several times was Harvey's Lake near the town of Barton. I had a rubber knife which Ray had bought me in his continuing effort to masculinize me, and on one of these trips I brought the toy knife with me. I used to play Superman with this knife, which, when used to attempt to stab my indestructible body, would turn aside just like in the comic books. At the lake, I met another boy about my age and let him play with my knife awhile. But when it was time to leave, I couldn't find him and so lost the knife.

Decades later, in early 1997, I learned that Michael, with whom I had just fallen in love, had spent boyhood summers in Vermont near Barton and that he had once met a boy at Harvey's Lake who loaned him a rubber knife and then disappeared before he could return it.

Mom continued to let us play, unsupervised, in the woods behind the house. In today's culture this would be considered tantamount to child abuse, or at least, neglect. But we loved it. It contributed to our adult sense of competency, as well as a love of nature. And the fact is, nothing bad ever happened to us: no broken bones, no bear encounters, no lost children. I often wonder if today's overprotective parents aren't raising a generation of adults who are truly incapable of taking care of themselves? Or worse, afraid to even try?

I spent, literally, hours in those woods and in the meadows between them. Frankly, I do not remember what I did in all that time. Sometimes I ate berries—and there were always berries. Sometimes, I led my sisters along the old wagon trail to see if we could find the end. Sometimes, I merely sat on a boulder in the warm summer sun or read beneath a tree and laid in the grass watching the clouds drift overhead. It was a solitary time, but I didn't feel lonely. Instead, I grew comfortable being by myself or with my dog, Wrags, who admittedly usually followed me anywhere I went.

Learning to Swim

Louise, Paul and Mary Joan at the Kiwanis pool in St. Johnsbury.

When we were visiting Gramma and Grampa in St. Johnsbury, Grampa often took us to the Kiwanis Club swimming pool. (Grampa was a loyal and long-term Kiwanian.) At first we just hung out in the shallow "baby pool." But I wanted to actually swim. So Grampa took me to the shallow end of the regular pool, where I could just about stand. He never went in the water. In fact, he wore a suit, with a tie, on these trips. But he showed me, from the side of the pool, the movements I should make to swim. It took me just a couple of tries before I was able to keep my head above water. I wasn't an expert swimmer by any means; but I was very proud to be freed of the confines of the baby pool and was soon urging my little sisters to let me "teach them" to swim.


Ray usually left for the weekend to return to his home in southern Vermont. One Monday, when he came back, he brought his 12-year-old son by his former wife with him. The kid's name was Greg, and this was the first time I'd had another kid to play with at home since I was 7 and lived in New Jersey.

It may have merely been Ray's turn to take care of his son. But I suspect one reason he brought Greg was so that Greg's heterosexuality would rub off on me. Because, one of the first things Greg did, was arrange for me to go "huntin'" with him.

I was already an ace shot with my .22 rifle, thanks to Mom's lessons the previous summer and much practice this year. But I had never killed an animal and didn't want much to, though I was far too young to have developed a moral stance regarding the issue. Greg was vague about what we were heading out to kill, too. "Maybe a bear…or a deer…or a squirrel. Whatever's out there."

A bear? It had never occurred to me that there might be a bear in our woods. Mom had talked about them, but we'd never seen one or any sign of one. That made me nervous. I think I had the idea that our hunting bears, would somehow attract a bear to our vicinity. Because otherwise, why would Greg think we might kill one if there'd never been one around there before? I assumed that Greg, years older than I, must know everything. If he thought we could kill a bear, he must know where they are, or how to bring one to us. And then there we'd be, confronting a bear, and I wasn't sure how big bears were but I knew they were ferocious and this trip was rapidly turning into far more than I had bargained for.

I farted.

"Excuse me," I said, blushing. Farting was one of those things in my family that one simply didn't do. In fact, I didn't yet know the word "fart". Gramma called it "passing gas" and even that euphemism was too raw for my mother, who called it "making a noise".

Greg, however, seemed to ignored it. "Better out than in," he observed.

That seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with the noise I'd just made; it seemed to refer to our being in the woods, surrounded by mosquitoes and bears and intent on shooting something. "Not to me," I retorted. "Better in than out." Then I realized he had been referring to my fart, and that I had made the most preposterous reply imaginable. But it was too late to fix it. So I continued to trudge along, blushing and miserable.

We never did come upon a bear. Or a deer. Greg thought he had a bead on a squirrel at one point, and fired his gun; but nothing fell out of the tree except a few leaves. After awhile we returned home, me with the same number of bullets as I'd had when I left. And that's the story of my one and only hunting trip.

First Crush

There was a girl in my school who had graduated eighth grade, who I just thought was the prettiest thing on two legs. She had smiled at me once, at which I promptly fell in love with her. Her name was Terry Brown. Brown was also my Mom's maiden name so Mom figured we were related. Not having figured out the whole romance thing, I loved the idea that we might be cousins.

One day, while shopping at Bouchard's Red & White grocery store in Concord, who should I spot outside but Terry! I made her pose with Mom and Gramma for a picture (I never went anywhere without my Brownie) all the while explaining that we were probably cousins.

Which reminds me of the time I was trying to fill out a coupon in the back of one of my comic books for a booklet on physical fitness from the school of Joe Wieder. There was a question on it I didn't know the answer to. "Mom!" I called down from my room. "What's 'sex'?"

Mom appeared almost instantly, as flustered as she'd been two years earlier when I asked about the "bumps" on her chest. Blushing, she began to explain about how boys have penises and girls don't, and something about babies and seeds and—. I had to interrupt her to explain that I was filling out a coupon, and there was only space for maybe one letter after the word "sex". She seemed more annoyed than relieved and growled, "just put 'M'," and stalked back down the stairs. I could only figure that 'M' stood for 'Man' so I put 'B' for 'boy'.

I never received the booklet.

Miles Pond

Another favorite lake was Miles Pond, which is located between Lunenburg and Concord. They had rowboats for rent, and I had my first rowing experience there. I didn't like it. I later discovered that canoes are much easier to paddle, even if they are trickier to get into and out of.


There was one other renovation I haven't described yet, though. 1960 was the year in which I was circumcised.

My dad had not been circumcised, and so I was not. I wasn't aware it was a choice and had not had occasion to see that there was an alternative.

Sometime in October or so, when we were still occupying the house in Victory, my penis began to sting when I pee'd. I said nothing, embarrassed that something was wrong "down there" until the pain reached the point I could keep it secret no longer. Mom took me to the emergency room in St. Johnsbury, where we were told I had developed a simple infection from not cleaning myself properly. Mom, it turns out, was supposed to have taught me (from infancy) how to retract the foreskin and wash each day when I bathed. Now, the foreskin had tightened and wouldn't retract. I was given an antibiotic but would have to have "an operation" to prevent a recurrence.

The operation, of course, was a circumcision, which most American boys have performed—needlessly—a day or two after birth. The trauma of this operation, which is usually performed without anesthesia, supposedly scars these men's psyches for the rest of their lives. The main reason for continuing this practice (which is usually credited to the Biblical Jews but was actually practiced at least as far back as the Sumerians) is fashion and habit. Most men are circumcised, so they have their sons circumcised. My dad was not, so I was not. If my father had lived, he probably would have taught me proper hygiene and I would be uncircumcised today.

So, one Monday in November, after we'd moved into the Val's Motel apartment, I was checked into a Catholic hospital in St. Johnsbury. This would be the first night I would spend away from home without a family member (other than Teddy, my stuffed bear). That was the downside. The upside was that I would be allowed to miss school for a week, maybe two.

The surgery was scheduled for 7 AM, and I wasn't allowed to eat after dinner—which was not a problem as I normally didn't, anyway. I wasn't frightened because I had no idea what an operation really was. A nurse came into my room about 9 PM and painted my penis and the area around it with iodine, a potentially humiliating experience but she was so matter-of-fact about it that my embarrassment quickly faded.

In the morning, several people came to get me including a young man who warned he would have to give me a shot. That scared me, but the man was so nice I did my best to hide my fear. He gave me the shot, and seconds later I was asleep.

When I awoke, it was slow and disturbing. Weird images surrounded me and I couldn't tell what was real and what was dream. I was also very dizzy and when I opened my eyes, the slightest movement of my head brought waves of nausea. The total effect was most unpleasant.

But soon my head cleared and I realized Mom was in the room with me.

I also realized my penis burned like fire.

The nurse came in and gave me another shot, this one to ease the pain; and though I hated the shot, I had to admit the relief came amazingly fast.

Me in the hospital, 1/8 ounce lighter than the day before. Mom, Grampa, and Gramma visiting. Mom looks entirely too pleased.

I spent five nights in that hospital, all told. Gramma and Grampa came to visit every day, as did Mom. My sisters were not allowed to visit, as they were too small to be allowed in the presumably germ-infested rooms. There was no TV in the room (as I supposed was generally the case in those days) but Mom brought in books and comics and I occupied myself when there were no visitors by reading.

My penis was completely covered in gauze. The nurse came in to change the dressing each day but I didn't watch, as the procedure was so painful I just shut my eyes. By the time Friday rolled around, though, it didn't hurt so much. I could walk, if I was careful. The site of the surgery was still heavily guarded with bandages.

That weekend I mostly stayed in bed watching TV. The bedroom in our apartment had two double beds, being a typical motel bedroom. My sisters slept in the far bed, while Mom and I shared the bed nearest the door. One of the shows we watched that weekend was a rerun of The Adventures of Superman. When one of Clark Kent's suspicions turned out to be true, Mom and Clark said, simultaneously, "Just as I thought!" Although I didn't have the word for it at the time, that was the first time I appreciated "camp" humor with someone else. It was a very warm feeling to share humor with someone in a form other than an out-and-out joke.

Monday I was allowed to take my first bath since the surgery. The bandages were supposed to just "fall off" in the bathtub. Mom carefully adjusted the water temperature to be as close to lukewarm as she could make it, but it still took me fifteen minutes to lower myself fully into the water. It's not that it hurt, exactly, but the sensation was so unbelievably strong that I couldn't stand it.

Subsequent baths were nearly as intense, though by the end of the second week the feeling had mostly subsided.

One year later, the newly-exposed head of my penis was still raw red, though it didn't hurt. By a year after that, it looked like those of the other boys in school.

Many men who were circumcised as babies, when they had no choice, feel they were mutilated and that the experience scarred them emotionally, not to mention physically. Some men who've been circumcised as adults say the sensitivity of their penis, especially during sex, has been greatly diminished.

I can only speak to my own experience. At nine years old, I had never had sex; so I can only say that if sex carried more sensation than it already does, it would probably kill me. And, since the majority of other boys were circumcised, I would have chosen it if I'd had a choice, just to have one less thing making me "different".

But, as an adult, and knowing what I know now, I would certainly hesitate to inflict this surgery on any baby. Unfortunately, most men have their sons circumcised for no reason other than fashion; and fashion is a poor reason to go under the knife.